I’m a straightforward person. So when I finally acknowledged that the sometimes paralyzing anxiety (that showed up right when I started grad school) was rooted in false beliefs and, ultimately, fear, I applied my engineering efficiency to outlining and overcoming my fears. I’ve dubbed this process of objectively listing each fear along with a potential neutralizing action as “25 and so Alive”, as I began taking fear inventory about a month before my birthday, with the intention of employing fear-fighting actions on my 25th birthday. I wanted to put up a strong offense to defend against the quarter life crisis I’d been hearing about. My list looked something like this:
Reading through the action items I’d written scared the crap out of me. So I knew I had to do them. I’ve summarized some of the lessons I learned from this “25 and so Alive” challenge, which enabled me to continue pushing past fears, taking chances, falling on my face in risky endeavors, meeting fantastic people, going beyond my limits, and loving the person I’ve become more and more. I hope these lessons inspire you to push past the fears in your life, is beyond fear is where the magic happens.
The Magic beyond My Fears:
Needles (acupuncture): this action item was a huge success (I’m not scared of needles anymore!) and it opened the floodgates. I realized among other things:
- I am a human being, a woman, to be specific, with feelings, and those feelings are valid and can be expressed. As a survival mechanism, I had subconsciously hardened during grad school, believing that emotions were antagonistic to the rationalism espoused in analytical research environments.
- I care deeply for people and all other beings. As I was very shy growing up, and did not accurately value my contributions, I became a very good observer and listener, but I can also be quite social and participate more fully in conversations. While I still love listening and find people’s stories fascinating, I don’t always need to be the one listening.
- I am worthy of people loving and liking me. I had made myself pathologically busy because, on some level, I thought that I needed to be needed and helpful for people to like me. I’m was also afraid that my thoughts and insecurities would take over if I weren’t busy all the time. I had believed that being busy meant I was useful and important, and being still was a hallmark of uselessness, indulgence, and laziness.
- I’d been suppressing my feelings for years, in part out of necessity, as my functioning in the competitive, male, foreign research environment (and doing research on mice) hinged on my emotional control and compartmentalization.
- I love science and am generally passionate about my chosen career path. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have always been surrounded by ample resources and people who believe in me. I come alive whenever I talk about research ideas or engage people in scientific discussions. People are interested in my work and in science, and I’m skilled at hooking non-scientists and explaining complex material in fun ways.
- It’s better to be me, living my life, looking the way that I do, with my unique roster of family and loved ones than to be any of the people whom I idolize. Cliche as it seems, the only way for me to be my best is to be myself.
Dancing in public (hip-hop class): I quickly learned to laugh at my awkwardness and not bother comparing myself to the beautiful, confident people in the class. I also learned that dancing can be fun and that I can actually do it (and have the capacity to be sexy! Whoa!). I caught myself moving in the mirror and was surprised and excited by how good I looked – but really, who cares what I look like; there’s nothing wrong with convulsing freely so long as I’m enjoying myself!
Feelings/quiet (meditation): This one has been a bender (in a great way!)! Per usual, I took the extreme route and attended a 30 minute silent meditation in a chapel on campus. I quickly learned that meditation is way easier than I thought and I can actually quiet my mind. I can attain an ethereal/euphoric feeling at the bottom of my breath and in stillness. I also learned how uncomfortable a chair can be after remaining quietly aware of my sitting it it for 40 seconds.
I had a tremendously enlightening and enjoyable experience at a conference in Boston that seeks to integrate mindfulness with education, at which the universe sent me spiritually open people who showed me, among many other things, that it’s cool to be the way I am. I don’t have to be raucously enthusiastic and the life of the party to be liked and fun to be around – I should just cultivate and share the intrinsic parts of myself that make me, me. And I got to connect with new and old friends at a startlingly deep level while exploring Boston and catching up with old friends. I found sympathetic years for my harrowing tales of the dark sides of research labs: animal abuse, experimental sabotage, and larger-than-life egos. This mindfulness conference was the first time I felt comfortable being vulnerable, which I had previously considered as showing weakness. I think the meditation has made me calmer, much less prone to anxiety, and better equipped to see the good and humor in situations and people. And to be open.
Big Public Failure (Tough Mudder):
I’ve been a high achiever for as long as I can remember. My quick intellect, insatiable curiosity, and substantial social awkwardness enabled me to cruise through school. So I never really failed big, failed publicly, and I worried that people only liked me because I was good at many things and useful many people, and if I stopped being that way, I would lose my sense of identity and be cast out of the tribe. I knew I had to test this hypothesis and set myself up for failures.
Luckily, many opportunities for failure presented themselves. I’ll never forget one damp winter night, my dad was jokingly teasing my sister and me about how he was in better shape than we were. He had just signed up for a Tough Mudder along with 5 other middle-aged men (who were, admittedly, in excellent shape). He correctly conveyed that I could not do something like that: a muddy 12 mile extreme obstacle course set on a steep ski mountain. With my sister Angie’s urging, we accepted his challenge, and I became immediately terrified, but at the same time a bit excited to explore the possibility of doing something in 6 months that I could definitely not do that day.
I went public with the goal of doing a Tough Mudder, and then planned the work and worked the plan. I hired a personal trainer to get me in shape, started thinking about what I was eating for the 1st time in my life, and experienced some great physical side effects as I prepared my mind and body for this challenge. Angie and I were ready!
I’ll never forget how alive and accomplished I felt, even after completing the 1st couple obstacles of climbing over a wall and jumping through fire. It was the perfect event, mentally overcoming so many obstacles (I hadn’t realized that I was afraid of heights, or spontaneous fire!) that manifested in the physical sense, and I got to face these fears with my sister by my side.
There were obstacles that I couldn’t do (like monkey bars), meaning that in this marathon event, I experienced failures. But I realized that I didn’t really care about the obstacles that beat me. Failure is all relative, and if I regard failures as opportunities to learn about myself and future situations, are they really failures?
And we beat my dad by 15 minutes. So he is really the one who failed.
Religion (reading the Bible and attending various services): I remember being 7 or 8 years old, reciting prayers in the pew of a Catholic church, and deciding that I’ll go along with this Catholic stuff for awhile and then really decide if I believe Scripture etc. when I turn 25. My child self reasoned that it’s safer for my soul to stay in the Catholic track and defer any major decisions until I have more information and cognitive ability.
So when I turned 25, I made good on my resolution and took my signature scientific approach by going back to the primary literature, the Bible, and reading it for myself to apply my own lens. My first finding was that it’s an extremely interesting book and much easier to read than I had expected. Importantly, many of the parts of the Bible that I didn’t think I agreed with were actually just people’s interpretations of the Bible, which I now regard as misinterpretations (for example, after reading oft-quoted passages, I’ve concluded that God does not denounce homosexuality). I was drawn to and found some peace in a Catholic church near campus, St. Mary’s, where my parents were married and I was baptized. Since I got into meditation, I realized that most fairly privileged 20-somethings categorize themselves as Buddhists in one way or another, which was initially appealing but seemed to lack the depth and community I had always associated with religion. I happily accepted invitations to attend other religious services and gatherings, and though I’m still formalizing my personal religious beliefs, I’m surprised (and somewhat relieved) to find myself leaning Catholic…
Running (running): I’ve always been the slow kid on the team, and I’ll never forget when my middle school cross-country coach pulled me off the bus and set in front of everyone and said “it’s amazing! I’ve never coached someone who got slower throughout the season. Now get off the bus!” We all know that middle school scars have the half-life of uranium, so this public declaration of my terrible running abilities hurt more than is rational. But I decided the best way to face my fear of running was to actually run, give it a fair chance, and do it my way. I’ll share my methods in more detail in a separate post, but to ruin the ending, now I love running, often going out seemingly undesirable weather, not using headphones, and getting into an amazing ,meditative, Zen-state from the process. Admittedly, I hated running for the first 25 days, and then the 26 and 27th days weren’t too bad, and then, amazingly, by the end of the first month of trying, I craved it. Now, I love running. Take that, middle school cross country coach 🙂